I’m going to gush about someone today. He’s someone who I don’t think even knows this blog exists, and there is little risk whatsoever that he ever read this article. This person is my father-in-law.
As a matter of fact, if he knew what I am about to say, I’m not sure he would know what to do with it. Talking about love isn’t in his vocabulary. Oh, he loves to talk. He can reinvent the wheel, the world, our entire geopolitical system between the cheese course and the dessert course of a meal.
He’s incredibly intelligent, although he barely went to school. He is insatiably curious about the world, and pursues the things that interest him with laser focus.
For many many years, I didn’t exactly get him.
I don’t know that he has ever said the words “I love you” to anyone out loud. I say that, I don’t know it for a fact, but all signs from everyone I’ve ever talked to point to this being true.
On the other hand, this man knows how to show love. He is a case study in the Acts of Service Love Language.
This is probably why I didn’t get him for the first solid fifteen years I knew him. I’ve said it before, but Acts of Service is a language that sounds like frogs croaking to me. There is no syntax, no recognizable syllables. It’s just there.
When I started looking into the Love Languages more seriously, as I began on this journey to detach how I loved from how I felt, I took the people in my life one by one and started studying them.
Becoming a student of the people in our lives does all kinds of strange things to us. First, it gives us an opportunity to sit back and actually think about them, in a detached way, a way that doesn’t depend on our feelings. To study them like a work of art: objectively, at first. Describing them, where they are from, what they do, the family they are from. How we met them, experiences we’ve had with them, good moments, tense moments.
Second, with them in the forefront of our mind, we can start thinking of subjective things we know about them: what they enjoy, what we know they don’t. Moments when we have seen them in their element. Moments we have seen them fly off the handle.
The first time I truly understood how much this person loved me was after my first baby was born. It was absolutely critical for this person to be there when the baby and I got home from the maternity ward, even though it was a 6 hour drive to get here.
When I say critical, I mean, even if I had had the courage to say, “No, I really would prefer to get settled at home with the baby before we have visitors,” I’m not sure he would have heard that.
You see, he was going to meet his first grandson. And there would be nothing that could get in the way of that.
My father-in-law is from the grand gestures school of Love Linguistics, but he speaks he also speaks the small gestures language fluently.
I genuinely never understood this until that day in August 2015 when I brought my baby home from the Clinic.
When you don’t speak fluently
Of course, I do remember a time maybe nine or ten years ago, when he disappeared for an entire day, going to every single shoe-repair shop in the region looking for a specific-colored shoe wax for a pair of heels I had brought for a visit, on the off-chance that he might have something to help me revive them. He was gone for hours.
When he got home, I was astounded that all he returned home with was that shoe wax. I couldn’t believe that he could possibly have been gone that long for a pair of my shoes.
You found it! I exclaimed when he showed it to me. His response is one I will never, ever forget. Imagine a French super-hero, standing in silhouette:
“I always find what I am looking for!”
How could I not have known that what he was saying to me in that moment was, “I love you”?
But I didn’t.
Or the multiple times he sewed my handbags back together by hand because he had sold all of his leather working machines to a young whippersnapper leather worker.
Or the time he took a jumbled mess of yarn and carefully rolled it back into a ball after my niece massacred a skein of yarn when she was little.
Or the fact that my mother-in-law has hand-cut leather insoles in every single pair of shoes she owns, because he wants her to be comfortable.
Or the way he entirely re-did my sister-in-law’s kitchen, one day a week for a year, never failing to show up and do impeccable work, taking on much of the cost for himself.
This is a man who isn’t lavish with his words, but is incredibly lavish with his actions.
To love someone so unlike us…
Once I understood, once my eyes were opened to how, for all these years he had been telling us he loved us, it humbled me immensely. My newfound humility made our relationship one that I now cherish, like finding a hidden treasure in the pocket of a thrift store coat.
You see, my pride kept me from ever being willing to accept the kindnesses he would offer. Me, not wanting to be an inconvenience, I would often refuse his help, unless he took my handbag and sewed it up when I wasn’t looking. How frustrating that must have been for him! To offer love and to see it rejected.
Now that I understand how he loves, I finally understand why giving him gifts has always been so frustrating, too. He doesn’t care about receiving gifts. He doesn’t feel loved when he receives gifts. He feels loved when we ask him for help. He actually feels loved when we ask him to do something for us.
So for Christmas, when I decided I wanted to give gifts in accordance with the Love Languages of the people on my list, I decided that, as backwards as it sounded, I was going to gift him the opportunity to do things for us.
Yup. We bought train tickets, paid for a hotel, so that my father-in-law could come help us do some much needed handyman stuff in our apartment. My mother-in-law, whose Love Language is spending time, will get to hang out with me and the boys, while my indulgent husband and his father fix walls, fix light fixtures, cabinets, paint…
Everybody is excited about this upcoming visit. Even, and especially, the one who’ll be doing all the work.
When it’s hard
There are people in our lives who can seem like brick walls to us. We don’t understand them, they are sources of frustration often. I’m not saying this is the case for my father-in-law, but I will admit that he was a mystery for a very long time.
Becoming a student of the people we love is a big fat lesson in humility. Being willing to change ourselves, in order to allow others to speak their Love Language can be scary, too. I mean, I have always tried very hard to keep out of people’s ways and not be an inconvenience. To pretend I don’t need anything when I am offered a glass of water or a refill on my coffee.
But if we are unwilling to be humble and recognize our own needs, our own desires, then we are not giving the people who love us, whose Love Language is Acts of Service, an opportunity to express themselves.
When we are learning a new language, we make mistakes and we don’t understand everything. It’s hard. Especially when we are learning that language as adults. The hardest part of learning a new language is opening our mouths and trying, when we know that it won’t come out right.
Humility is the secret to getting past that very real hurdle in learning to communicate in any language, including the Love Languages.